Are you a fan of early bird dinners? Or do you prefer chowing down with the night owls? Whether it’s due to a busy work schedule or family demands, sometimes dinner has to happen whenever you can find the time. But if you’re able to avoid a late night meal, it might be a good idea as evidence suggests eating dinner too late in the day can contribute to negative health outcomes.
A 2022 study from the Journal of Cell Metabolism showed that eating very late in the day (e.g. dinner at 8 p.m. instead of 4 p.m.) increases hunger, decreases energy expenditure, and alters adipose (fat) tissue gene expression (1). These three factors can combine to increase obesity risk.
Some experts even caution that when you eat might be more important than what you eat. In a recent Newsweek article, an expert advised that earlier is better when it comes to dinner (2). Brea Lofton, a R.D. with Lumen, told Newsweek, “To help your body efficiently metabolize your meals and avoid weight gain, it’s best to eat your last meal early in the evening to maintain the harmony with your body’s natural circadian rhythm, which plays a crucial role in regulating various physiological processes, including digestion, sleep, and hormone production.” She advises readers to eat dinner at least three hours before bed.
What Do Other Experts Say Is the Best Time to Eat Dinner?
Many studies have shown a link between poor diets and sleep disturbances, so it’s no secret that food and sleep are closely related, but is there really a “worst” time to eat dinner? The answer is not as clear cut as a number on the clock. Jordan Hill, a lead registered dietitian for Top Nutrition Coaching says, “It’s more complicated than simply identifying a “worst” time to eat dinner. The ideal dinner time can vary from person to person based on their lifestyle, metabolism, and overall health. It’s important to consider factors like your daily schedule, activity level, personal preferences, and health conditions.”
However, she agrees with the general consensus that an earlier dinner is often better. Hill confirms, “Eating earlier allows your body more time to digest food before going to bed, which can reduce the risk of indigestion or acid reflux. Other benefits may include blood sugar control and sleep quality.”
So, is there an absolute worst (or best) time to dig into dinner? Unfortunately an exact time might be impossible to name. Hill says, “The ideal dinner time can vary from person to person and depend on various factors, including work schedules, lifestyle, and individual preferences. While earlier dinners are generally recommended for better digestion and sleep, what’s most important is to find a dinner time that works for you and allows you to maintain a healthy and balanced diet.” Depending on work or family obligations, some days dinner might happen a little later than usual. And if that’s the case, remember that eating something light and late will be better than skipping a meal entirely.
The Three-Hour Rule
So while what you eat is important, keep in mind that when you eat can also play a role in metabolism. If you’re able to incorporate it into your schedule, having dinner at least three hours before bed can lead to more restful sleep (3). By allowing more time between your final meal of the day and sleep, your body will be able to focus on repair while you snooze rather than breaking down food.
But what if you occasionally need to eat on the later side? In addition to meal timing, Hill says there are a few more things you can do to ensure better quality shuteye. She says, “There are many ways folks can maximize their sleep quality. Some of those include maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, creating a relaxing bedtime routine and sleeping environment, limiting screen time in the evening, exercising regularly, and avoiding caffeine and alcohol intake in the evening.”
1. Nina Vujović; Matthew J. Piron; Jingyi Qian; Marta Garaulet; Matthew J. Brady; Frank A.J.L. Scheer. “Late isocaloric eating increases hunger, decreases energy expenditure, and modifies metabolic pathways in adults with overweight and obesity,” CLINICAL AND TRANSLATIONAL REPORT, VOLUME 34, ISSUE 10, P1486-1498.E7, OCTOBER 04, 2022.
2. Beresford, Jack. “Dietician Reveals Worst Time to Eat Dinner for Weight Gain,” Newsweek; September 17, 2023. https://www.newsweek.com/worst-time-eat-dinner-weight-gain-dietician-1827398
3. HealthEssentials, “Is Eating Before Bed Bad for You?” Cleveland Clinic, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/is-eating-before-bed-bad-for-you/. March 23, 2022.
Hill, Jordan. Author interview. September 2023.